Feeling stressed is a common and normal part of the human experience. According to Gallup’s 2019 Global Emotions Report, 55% of the 2018 U.S. population reported feeling stress. The American Psychological Association reports that 77% of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, 73% regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress, and 48% said stress had a negative impact on their personal and professional lives. Everyone will feel stress in their lives, but what causes it, what it feels like, and effective ways of dealing with it will vary from person to person. In this article I’ll cover the effects of stress on the body and some lifestyle modifications you can make to help yourself de-stress and get some much-needed relaxation.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a mental, and sometimes physical, response to mental or emotional tension you may feel. Acute stress has been described as being in “fight-or-flight” mode. When you experience stress, the sympathetic nervous system in your body becomes activated and prompts the hypothalamus to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This results in increased blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and sweating.
These hormones can also give you a boost of strength and stamina to either fight or flee. During fight-or-flight, big muscles like quadriceps and biceps receive more blood so they are prepared to run or battle. Blood also drains away from extremities like your hands, feet, and even face, so that if you are wounded you won’t bleed to death, leaving us with cold and tingly hands and feet, and a pale face and lips. These physical changes were all very helpful responses to danger when our species was developing—we needed them all to battle or run away from predators like wild animals.
However, when the stress response occurs in response to being stuck in traffic, an unpleasant interaction at work, or even worries or thoughts in your own mind, all that adrenaline and cortisol can leave us feeling shaky, anxious, nauseous, exhausted, emotionally volatile, or give us digestive issues, skin irritations, immune system flare ups, sexual dysfunction, and more.
There are several different types of stress, and they each cause slightly different but overlapping symptoms and conditions in the body. These include:
- Acute stress: This is the fight-or-flight response we think of when we think of stress, including sweaty palms, shaky muscles, dry mouth, and a feeling of terror and overwhelm.
- Chronic stress: This is a less dramatic, low-level type of stress that comes with regular daily life and responsibilities. A demanding job, consistent financial worries, not getting enough sleep or time for yourself, and loneliness can all cause chronic stress. While symptoms are less dramatic than those of acute stress, over time chronic stress can have harmful effects on your health, especially your cardiovascular, digestive, sexual, and immune system health.
- Eustress: Even good things happening in your life can cause stress, like receiving a promotion at work or falling in love. Whenever there are big changes in our lives, or something new is demanded or expected of us, the stress response can be activated.
- Distress: Normal life stressors that have negative connotations cause distress. Divorce, illness or injury, and losing a job all cause physical symptoms that are almost identical to eustress, however they’re interpreted negatively, because they were caused by what most consider to be negative life events.
Symptoms of Stress
Since everybody is different, and people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress can vary greatly from person to person. Stress can affect us in both physical and psychological ways.
Physical symptoms of stress can include:
- Digestive issues like diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, and acid reflux
- Muscular tension, shaking, aches, and pains
- Heart palpitations and rapid heartbeat
- Dry mouth, clenched jaw, grinding your teeth
- Decreased sex drive and/or ability
- Cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Increase or decrease in appetite
Psychological symptoms of stress can include:
- Irritability, moodiness, and becoming easily frustrated
- Constant worrying and racing thoughts
- Memory impairment
- Lack of concentration or inability to focus
- Feelings of overwhelm or being out of control
- Feeling lonely and isolated from other people or avoiding social interactions
Conditions Related to Stress
Small or short-lived doses of stress are inevitable, and our bodies are designed to handle them. However, if the stress response becomes constant, it can cause a host of problems. Untreated, long-term stress can lead to:
- Cardiovascular issues like high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, stroke, and heart disease
- Metabolism issues like obesity and diabetes
- Mental health issues like anxiety and depression
- Sexual issues like menstrual problems, loss of sex drive, impotence, and premature ejaculation
- Skin and hair issues like eczema, psoriasis, acne, and hair loss
- Gastrointestinal issues like gastritis, ulcerative colitis, GERD, and irritable bowel syndrome
- Immune system issues like slow-healing wounds and infections, getting sick often, greater susceptibility to and longer recovery from viruses like the flu
- Headaches and migraines
Lifestyle Modifications to Treat Stress
Luckily, there are almost as many lifestyle modifications you can make to combat stress, as there are things that stress us out. The most important thing is to find something you enjoy doing, that works with your lifestyle, to regularly diffuse stress so it doesn’t build up and cause you chronic or systemic issues. Here are some tried and true methods to help your body out of the stress response, run by the sympathetic nervous system, and into relaxation and healing, governed by the parasympathetic nervous system.
Exercise is an excellent way to release feel good-hormones called endorphins, and to help your body to metabolize and eliminate the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Endorphins can improve mood and act as natural painkillers. Getting enough exercise in your day can also help you sleep better at night, which is often very important to keep stress at bay. In order to relieve stress, try to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise like swimming or brisk walking, or 75 minutes per week of more vigorous aerobic activity like running, dancing, or taking the stairs. Try to find a form of exercise you enjoy, as you’ll be much more likely to stick with it.
Some excellent forms of exercise you can try include:
- Brisk walking
- Jogging or running
- Aerobics classes like Zumba, step, and cardio kickboxing
- All types of dance
- Yoga and stretching
It can be a vicious cycle—a lack of sleep can cause stress, but being stressed can keep you from sleeping. When you’re stressed out, your thoughts may begin to race once your head hits the pillow and it can be hard to relax the body and mind enough to get into a deep sleep.
In order to maximize your chances of getting good sleep you can try:
- A hot shower or bath before bed. Hot water can be soothing to the nervous system and help your body and mind settle.
- Avoid screens such as computers, TVs, and phones for a few hours before bed. The blue light from your screens can stimulate your pituitary gland, causing your body to think it’s still daytime. Light from screens can also inhibit the production of melatonin, a hormone that lets your body know it’s time to sleep.
- Depending on your sensitivity to caffeine, it can help to avoid caffeinated coffee, tea, and sodas starting in the late afternoon or early evening.
- Try to get to bed at about the same time each night so that your mind and body fall into a routine.
What you eat can play a big role in how stressed out you feel. If you’re eating a healthy balanced diet full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins, you will very likely feel more relaxed and grounded than if you’re subsisting on coffee and cake. Below, find some stress-busting foods to help keep you calm and collected as you deal with life’s ups and downs.
Try to eat more:
- Leafy green vegetables: Leafy-green vegetables like spinach and kale are an excellent source of magnesium, which helps to calm the nervous system, and folate, which helps to produce dopamine, another calming, pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter. Leafy greens can also help regulate the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, keeping high blood pressure and other fight-or-flight symptoms in check.
- Complex carbohydrates: Recently carbs have gotten a bad reputation, but complex carbs like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole grain breads, pastas, and cereals can be great foods to keep your blood sugar steady, and to keep you happy and calm. Carbs promote the production of serotonin, a mood-boosting neurotransmitter, in the brain.
- Citrus fruits: Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, and lemons contain high levels of vitamin C, which strengthens the immune system that stress can weaken, and decreases stress hormone levels like cortisol.
- Fatty fish: Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines can be an excellent food to combat stress and its effects. These fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, natural anti-inflammatory agents, which can help mitigate the inflammatory effects of adrenaline and cortisol and protect your heart against cardiovascular disease. Try to eat at least 3.5 ounces of fatty fish twice a week. If you don’t eat fish but want to get those omega-3s elsewhere, you can find them in flaxseeds, walnuts, seaweed, edamame, and chia seeds.
- Nuts and seeds: Sunflower, flax, and pumpkin seeds contain high levels of magnesium, which can help alleviate anxiety, depression, PMS, fatigue, and other symptoms of stress. Nuts like pistachios and walnuts can also ease inflammation and stabilize blood sugar. Almonds also have vitamin E for immune-boosting benefits, and B vitamins which are crucial to good nervous system functioning. Try to eat about one fourth of a cup a day of a variety of nuts and seeds.
- Avocados: Avocados contain high levels of potassium, about the same amount as two bananas. Potassium helps keep you calm by regulating blood pressure and by relaxing your muscles. Avocados also contain B vitamins, which are important in the production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, and are important to the functioning of the nervous system. Deficiencies of B vitamins are linked to increased anxiety and stress.
- Turkey and other lean proteins: Turkey has become famous for tryptophan, an amino acid that has a calming effect and helps produce serotonin. Vegetarians seeking tryptophan-induced relaxation can find it in smaller amounts in other protein-rich foods like tofu, fish, nuts, seeds, eggs, lentils, and beans.
- Dairy: Did your parents ever make you a warm glass of milk before bed? Turns out they were on to something. Dairy is an excellent source of vitamin D, an important nutrient for feelings of happiness and well-being. Studies show that low levels of vitamin D may increase your risk of depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. Allergic to dairy? Other foods you can eat for vitamin D include egg yolks, salmon, and fortified cereal. Another stress-busting aspect of dairy is the protein lactium, which has a calming effect on the body by reducing cortisol levels and lowering blood pressure.
- Avoid excess alcohol, caffeine, and sugar: If you’re seeking a life of less stress, try to minimize or avoid excessive intake of alcohol, caffeine, and sugar, all of which can increase inflammation, make it harder for you to get a good night’s sleep, weaken your immune system, and activate your sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight response.
There are a large variety of relaxation techniques effective in combating stress. It’s best to try and practice these while you’re relatively calm, so that when you do enter a period or situation of increased stress, you’ll already know what works for you, and how, when, and where you can practice it. Be patient as you test out new relaxation techniques, some can take time before they’re effective for you, but the benefits can be well worth the effort.
- Meditation: Studies show that even just a few minutes of meditation daily can reduce stress and reroute the brain’s habitual patterns towards more healthful ones. There are many different kinds of meditation you can try, including mindfulness practice, vipassana, insight meditation, transcendental meditation, mantra meditation, concentration practice, and more. If you find it hard to practice at home, look for a class or practice group in your area. There are also numerous instructional videos, podcasts, and books.
- Progressive relaxation: Progressive relaxation is a technique of tensing and relaxing muscle groups, generally starting with the feet, calves, and thighs, and moving up towards the torso, chest, and face. Progressive muscle relaxation takes about 10-20 minutes per day and has been shown to help reduce symptoms of stress, insomnia, and chronic pain.
- Breathwork: Breathing in a controlled or deep way can be an incredibly effective way to reduce stress, even if just for a few minutes at a time. Deep breathing can almost immediately slow heart rate and lower blood pressure. It can also help to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which combats fight-or-flight. For a simple exercise, try inhaling deeply and slowly through your nose, and exhaling through your mouth. For added calming effects, you can inhale to a count of four, hold your breath for four counts, and exhale to a count of eight. There are many other types of breathing exercises, including abdominal and diaphragmatic breathing.
- Affirmation practice: In order to keep your calm during stressful situations, it can be helpful to have a word or mantra to focus on. One technique is to focus on a word or phrase like “calm,” or “I’ve got this.” When you notice stressful or anxious thoughts bombarding you, return your focus on your word or phrase.
Keeping in touch with family and friends is a healthy activity that can keep you feeling happy and connected. Especially during times of stress, maintaining your social network is incredibly important. Spending time with loved ones can release the hormone oxytocin, a natural stress reliever and mood lifter. Loneliness and social isolation has been shown to increase stress and its symptoms, like insomnia, fatigue, cardiovascular disease, and weakened immune system functioning. Spending time with people you enjoy in person is best, but if your closest friends aren’t local, talking on the phone and video chatting can help as well.
Creative activities like journaling, singing, dancing, painting, ceramics, and more can be soothing and relaxing. Creative pursuits can offer a welcome break from life’s stressors, as well as physically reducing anxiety and symptoms of stress.
In addition to feeling great, laughter can actually be therapeutic in terms of lowering stress. A hearty dose of laughter can lower cortisol and boost endorphins as well as your immune system. So, treat yourself to a comedy show (many bars and comedy studios offer free or very low-priced open mic nights!), call up your funniest friend, or watch a movie or TV show that makes you laugh.
Studies show that hugging, cuddling, kissing, massage, and general friendly physical contact can lower cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure, and release oxytocin. Person-to-person contact can also boost your confidence, your immune system, get you out of your stressful thoughts and into your body, as well as ease anxiety and depression. Cuddling or stroking a pet can have the same effect.
Creating positive boundaries
Many people get stressed when they have too much on their plates and not enough time to recharge on their own. It can be a stress-reducing activity to know how to say ‘no’ to jobs, favors, and even relationships that don’t serve you and take too much of your time and energy. If you’re used to saying ‘yes,’ to most people who ask something of you, saying no can be hard at first, but over time people will learn to respect the ways in which you guard your own time, energy, and self-care.
If you’re worried about hurting someone’s feelings, you can soften your ‘no,’ by saying something like, “I’d really love to help you, but with my current work situation/financial situation/schedule I won’t be able to.” Or, “I care so much about you, but I need to make sure I’m taking care of myself right now, so I need to say no.”
Therapy and medication
If stress feels unrelenting or out of control, it could be helpful to consult with a mental health professional who can help you reach a more relaxed state. Talk therapy like psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be incredibly effective stress-reducers. A physician may also recommend you try medication like beta-blockers or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to help your body shake off the stress response or maintain a calmer baseline.
When to See a Doctor
If you feel overwhelmed by stress, or that your stress response is triggered too often or for too long, make a visit to your health care provider. He or she can evaluate your symptoms to rule out any other health issues that might cause stress symptoms, as well as help guide you towards psychological or medical treatment for stress and its effects.
If you experience symptoms like chest, jaw, or back pain, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, or nausea, or pain that radiates in your shoulders and arms, seek medical attention to make sure they are caused by stress and not something else.
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